A young woman prepares dumplings at her dining table


Unlike My Father, I’m Not a Gatekeeper of Traditional Chinese Foods — Sometimes I Use Cauliflower

Jul 5, 2021

My husband and I fell in love while trying to find the best croissant in Paris.

We are foodies.

And when we became parents, we were excited to share our love of food with our kids.

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Yes, Chef

I’m the one who cooks in our household. Trying to balance work and home life has made me more creative and resourceful in the kitchen.

One cold day, I was particularly swamped at work. By the time I got home, I was beyond pooped. It was the end of the week and we were in desperate need of groceries.

However, the kids were starving. I was ravenous and my husband was getting home in an hour. Instead of finger-cooking, I saw it as an opportunity to test my resourcefulness and stretch my creativity.

I opened the fridge, hoping to find some leftovers but to no avail. The only thing I could see was a sad and lonely cauliflower sitting in the back of the fridge, slowly wilting away its misspent life.

I’m thinking about what I could make with cauliflower when my daughter asks me if we could have congee for dinner. The wheels start to turn in my head. Recently, I saw someone post a recipe for cauliflower fried rice. I’m wondering,

“What if instead of fried rice, I make congee with cauliflower?”

Food Remixing

I grabbed a big pot and filled half of it with water. I turned on the stove and threw a healthy spoonful of salt in. I then rummaged through my freezer and found a frozen duck carcass from when we had Peking duck for my mom’s birthday. So I tossed that in.

Then I started washing the cauliflower and was about to remove the leaves and stem when I remembered the entire cauliflower is edible. I roughly chop the cauliflower into chunks and submerge them in the pot of water.

At this point of free-form dinner creation, I looked around for an additional protein source and something to thicken the congee. I poured a cup of split red lentils and a cup of jasmine rice grains into a bowl and rinsed them quickly under the tap before adding them in.

Then I went back to the freezer to discover some sweet potatoes I had been saving for my son’s baby food. They’re perfect. With no plan, and a dream, cooking like this in the kitchen can be chaotic, but it can also be deeply satisfying.

When everything came to a boil, I turned the heat down to low, added chicken stock and more salt to taste before allowing it to simmer. When my husband got home from work, I ran upstairs to take a shower — while yelling: 

“Please keep an eye on the pot. Get the bowls ready. Dinner will be ready when I come down.”

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When It All Works Out

When you cook in this manner, there are no guarantees. Sure, you may use all of your last bits and bobs, but will it taste good?

I could smell the roasted duck flavours wafting in the hallway as I came downstairs to the kitchen. I grabbed a wooden spoon to mix the congee, removed the carcass from the pot, and used a potato masher to break up the cauliflower. Then I grabbed a ladle and served the congee in bowls. I topped them with roasted peanuts, minced green onions and a couple of drops of sesame oil.

As my daughter took her first bite, she gave me her signature response:

“好味啊! 唔該晒,媽咪! (So yummy! Thank you, mommy!)”

And from that day on, I’ve made this dish too many times to count.

Traditions Hard to Break

I never thought there was anything peculiar about it until recently. I was picking my daughter up from my parents’ house when my dad asked me what we were having for dinner.

I nonchalantly said, “Congee.”

He inquires, “Oh, what do you put in it?”

I respond, “Rice, duck, sweet potatoes, lentils …”

As I finished, saying “and cauliflower," my dad’s face changed to a look of disgust.

He shook his head, “That’s not congee.”

I retort, “It is to me. You and mom have a very narrow palate. You only like traditional Chinese food like rice with a side of rice. This is my family’s take on congee.”

My daughter overheard our conversation and her face lit up: “Yay! 粥 (congee)!”

I look at my dad and say, “She likes it. That’s all that matters to me.”

Over the last year, Janice Quirt wondered if any harm would come from breaking with traditions. Here are her thoughts.

Is There a Wrong Way to Make Congee?

Despite growing up with my parents’ traditional palate, I’ve learned to appreciate a wide range of flavours that allow me to be adventurous with my cooking. Cauliflower congee has become a classic dinner in our household. It’s quick, easy, healthy and nutritious.

From the nuttiness of the cauliflower, the starchiness of locally-grown sweet potatoes, the fragrance of jasmine rice to the aromatic five-spice of the roasted duck, it has the blend of flavours that remind me of both my Chinese and Canadian upbringings.

Every time we enjoy it as a family, I’d like to think the dish connects cultures and generations together, creating a new food tradition that preserves the past and embraces the present.

Maybe when my daughter grows up, she’ll put her own spin on the dish.

I’m excited to see how congee will evolve over the years in our family.

Article Author Katharine Chan
Katharine Chan

Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP, is an author of three books and a Top 30 Vancouver Mom Blogger. She has over a decade of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality improvement projects and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services and women's health. Her blog, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve is a raw and honest look at self-love, culture, relationships and parenthood. She shares personal stories to empower others to talk about their feelings despite growing up in a culture that hides them. She’s appeared as a guest on CBC News Radio and Fairchild TV News and contributed to HuffPost Canada and Scary Mommy.

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